The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

Brand engagement: What are your employees saying about your firm on social media?

By Christine S. Pitt, Prof Elsamari Botha, João J. Ferreira and Jan Kietzmann

  • June 2019
  • Tags Strategic Management
16 minutes to read

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What can managers learn from their employees’ comments on social media?

Brands and people are regarded as highly valuable assets of a firm. That is why brand engagement – how stakeholder groups engage with a company brand – has received so much attention lately. But what about employees who are engaging with a firm’s brand on social media, especially in the business-to-business (B2B) context?

To gain a better understanding of employees’ engagement with their company brands, this study started off by looking at what these employees are saying on social media about the firms they work for in the B2B context.

Conversations about brands happen all the time, online and offline, without the explicit permission – or even awareness … For brand managers, this poses significant challenges.

It is believed that this insight can help human resource departments and managers to become better employers and to build better brands in the eyes of the employees. In addition, it will enable these firms to benefit from positive brand engagement while reducing potential risks and negative outcomes.

Why brand engagement is important

Brand engagement is an important concept in marketing as it is strongly connected to brand equity, also referred to as the value of a brand. Brand equity is often driven by a consumer’s association with a brand’s features and attributes, and ultimate engagement with the brand. Brand awareness is not the same as brand engagement. Engagement is emotional. Therefore, brand managers should focus on real brand engagement as this will influence their customers’ behaviour toward the firm, ultimately leading to sales and profitability.

Brand engagement has changed considerably with the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, specialised platforms like TripAdvisor and Instagram, platforms with a more professional slant like LinkedIn, and career-related sites such as Glassdoor. Users can interact with other users and engage with brands on these social media platforms.

Traditional brand management strategies focus solely on consumers, omitting important stakeholders like employees, whose voice is often seen as “more believable”. Evidence suggests that successful employee engagement strategies will strengthen firm performance. One study has shown that 84% of highly engaged employees believe they can positively affect the quality of their organisation’s offerings, as opposed to only 31% of disengaged employees who believe this.

Traditionally, employee comments on the firm was limited to face-to-face interactions. The advent of social media has changed stakeholder engagement with brands in many ways. Some of this has been intentional, driven by strategies aimed at forming online communities – such as fan pages on Facebook and YouTube channels. In other cases, these stakeholders, rather than firms, have driven much of the engagement with brands. This is evident in the plethora of consumer-generated content on social media. Consumers post videos, share content, and offer both positive and negative commentary on the brands they love or hate.

Conversations about brands happen all the time, online and offline, without the explicit permission – or even awareness … For brand managers, this poses significant challenges.

Conversations about brands happen all the time, online and offline, without the explicit permission – or even awareness – of those in charge of managing the brands. For brand managers, this poses significant challenges.

The reflexivity of brand and human capital

It has long been asserted in management literature that “brands and human capital constitute some of the firm’s most important assets”. Some researchers are now arguing that despite the focus on these two capitals as valuable assets in separate marketing and human resources management literature, their analytical separation impedes our understanding of how they can potentially interact. Hence, it is necessary to understand both assets – brand and human capital – jointly.

Figure 1 illustrates this relationship. Strong brands influence employees; this influence emanates from employees as they experience the brand. This engagement influences employee offerings and relationships with other stakeholders, the most important of which are customers but can also include prospective employees. Employee brand engagement directly influences the firm’s performance and ultimately affects the brand.

Figure 1: The cycle of employee brand engagement
Figure 1: The cycle of employee brand engagement

This cycle can be vicious or virtuous. In a virtuous cycle, a strong brand positively influences employees for which heightened brand engagement leads to increased firm performance through their involvement in improving the firm’s offerings or relationships with key stakeholders. The increased firm performance then further strengthens the brand, and so on.

Employee brand engagement directly influences the firm’s performance and ultimately affects the brand.

On the other hand, a vicious cycle describes how a brand in trouble could negatively impact employee brand engagement, which in turn could negatively affect the firm’s offerings and other stakeholder relationships. This would impact the firm performance and brand negatively. In order for organisations to compete successfully, customers as well as employees must be engaged.

At present, most of the research on brand engagement focuses on customers rather than other stakeholder groupings such as employees, suppliers and investors. This article, however, recognises the importance of employees as stakeholders who engage with their employer brands on social media.

How the study was conducted

To gain insight into the engagement between employees and the brands of the companies for which they work, the researchers turned to social media to collect employee-generated content regarding their employment at B2B brands.

The research team used Glassdoor as the source of data on employee brand engagement via social media. Glassdoor’s main purpose is to provide an online platform for employees to share information about jobs and employers in order to help others make career decisions. On this website, employees can rate a firm on a five-star scale (1 star = very low; 5 stars = very high).

Data was gathered from Glassdoor reviews in two ways. First, an independent ranking of the top B2B brands on social media by Brandwatch was used to identify the top 30 ranked B2B brands and the bottom 30 in terms of their use of social media. The reviews of the 30 top-ranked brands were split into two groups, those with five-star ratings and those with one-star ratings, and the same was done with the 30 bottom-ranked brands. This resulted in 2,315 five-star and 1,983 one-star reviews for the highest-ranked firms, and 1,013 five-star and 1,025 one-star reviews for the lowest-ranked firms.

Social media has become a major source of market intelligence for marketing practitioners as well as marketing scholars.

  • Each review was subjected to content analysis using the DICTION tool. DICTION determines to which extent the texts expressed the following:
    • Certainty (language and words that indicate resoluteness, inflexibility, completeness, and a tendency to speak with authority)
    • Optimism (language that endorses an individual, a group, a concept or an event)
    • Activity (language that is about movement, change, and the implementation of ideas and the avoidance of inertia)
    • Realism (language that describes tangible, immediate and recognisable issues)
    • Commonality (language that communicates communitarian concepts, and specifically highlights the agreed-upon values of a group of individuals, rejects language that is idiosyncratic in terms of engagement).

    Findings

    It was found that employees of higher-ranked and higher-rated brands were significantly more optimistic about their employing firms and also significantly more likely to express commonality – communitarian concepts and the agreed-upon values of a group.

Armed with powerful software to process this data, practitioners and scholars can shed new light on how stakeholders engage with brands.

The two dimensions on which higher-ranked and higher-rated brands scored significantly higher than their lower counterparts – namely optimism and commonality – were used to construct a simple but powerful matrix that provides potentially valuable managerial insights. The optimism-commonality matrix creates four different kinds of employee brand engagement situations, offering human resources and marketing managers different strategies in each case. This is illustrated in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Key drivers of employee brand engagement on social media
Figure 2: Key drivers of employee brand engagement on social media

The matrix argues that there are four kinds of employees who engage with their firms’ brands on social media: Engagers, Community seekers, Here for my friends and Apathetics:

  • Engagers: Firms ideally want employees who are engagers, typically found in both highly ranked and highly rated B2B firms. These employees are highly attached to their communities and optimistic about their firms. The manager’s task here is to uphold both the optimism and the commonality in order to maintain the highest levels of brand engagement.

This study found that employees in highly ranked and highly rated firms are more optimistic about their firms, the brands they engage with, and their future careers in these environments.

  • Community seekers: In the case, there is high optimism among employees about the firm and its brand but commonality is lacking. The manager’s task here is to focus on building a sense of community, or commonality, among employees. Social media can be a powerful way of doing this.
  • Here for my friends: In this quadrant, it is very possible that the engagement that employees have is not so much with the brand, but with each other. There is high commonality, but this might actually cause employees to coalesce in negative ways rather than in ways that are beneficial to the brand. Indeed, their negative feelings toward the firm might be their reason to band together, which could have deleterious consequences for the firm and its brand. The manager’s challenge here is to find ways to inject optimism into the situation and to use the commonality that exists to foster positive brand engagement.
  • Apathetics: Employees in this quadrant are low on both optimism and commonality. Employees who are pessimistic and find no community in their firms will leave, which is undesirable if they are good and competent. Or they will stay and continue to engage with
  • the brand in a negative way, which can have an adverse impact on other stakeholders. This reinforces the thinking discussed in the virtuous/vicious brand engagement cycle in Figure 1.

Employees’ opinions matter

This article looked at brand engagement from a generally overlooked perspective: that of employees as a stakeholder group. This is important because employee brand engagement impacts the engagement of stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and investors.

When employees are negatively engaged with their employer brands on social media, or when this engagement is poorly managed, the consequences can be severe …

Employees use social media to let others – including friends, family and current and potential employees – know how they feel about their places of work. This source can be “more believable” than company communication, which can be construed by customers as marketing rhetoric.

This study found that employees in highly ranked and highly rated firms are more optimistic about their firms, the brands they engage with, and their future careers in these environments. Similarly, they see themselves as part of a community or team, and these communities or teams are built around a brand as a common identifier. The benefits to the firm created by these phenomena are profound: The positive effects of these behaviours can help to increase revenue, lower costs, improve service and enhance customer satisfaction.

It was found that when employees are positively engaged with their employer brands on social media and this engagement is well managed, this holds various benefits for an organisation’s customers, its employees and the organisation itself. When employees are negatively engaged with their employer brands on social media, or when this engagement is poorly managed, the consequences can be severe for the organisation’s customers, employees and other stakeholders.

Making the analysis of employee brand engagement part of overall corporate marketing and HR strategy will allow managers to listen and react to their employees’ opinions, to become better employers, and to build better brands in the eyes of the employees. By paying attention to their own employee brand engagement over time, and by monitoring changes that can be gleaned about the brand engagement of their own employees and those of their competitors, firms can transform into desirable places to work and gain a competitive advantage over others.

Making the analysis of employee brand engagement part of overall corporate marketing and HR strategy will allow managers to listen and react to their employees’ opinions …

  • Find the original journal article here: Pitt, C.S., Botha, E., Ferreira, J.J. & Kietzmann, J. (2018). Employee brand engagement on social media: Managing optimism and commonality. Business Horizons, 61(4), 635-642.
  • Christine Pitt is from the Division of Industrial Marketing, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden.
  • Prof Elsamari Botha lectures in Digital Enterprise Management and Digital Futures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch, South Africa.
  • João J. Ferreira is from the Research Unit in Business Sciences (NECE), University of Beira Interior, Covilhã, Portugal.
  • Jan Kietzmann is from Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada.

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